Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"We Could Use the Barn!"

So you are a student union, or a club, or a dance group, or someone else who has come up with the cash and the expected audience to rent a hall. Now, sure, you can put on a show the same way they did it in that old Mickey Rooney vehicle, Babes in Arms (from which the above quote comes.) This may in fact be exactly appropriate for your venue and your expected audience. There is a certain charm in a low-key, honestly amateur production.

But assuming you've went and spent money on a facility that can handle a professional production, and especially if that facility comes with (or you have hired) a professional or two to help, there's a couple of things you can do and think about that will allow them to help you get the best show possible.

First off, though, put out of your mind the need to speak their language. You wouldn't expect to have to do that to get good help from a doctor, or a mechanic (although a mechanic may be nicer to you if you seem to at least have a sense of what is under the hood).

Trying to use an unfamiliar terminology is like insisting on ordering in French at a restaurant when you don't speak a word of it. You end up exactly defining things you didn't mean to exactly define, and you actually restrict the ability of the technical people to understand you and to help you.

What you need to do is imagine as concretely as possible what it is you want to see and hear. Don't try to imagine the technology that will accomplish that; that is our job. Think instead about the emotional feel you are trying to accomplish and, if you have the artistic training, describe as concretely as possible the elements that make it possible.

Telling a lighting person "I want the back to be blue" is not as useful as telling them "I want it to feel like romantic moonlight." And if you have the artistic background to know how moonlight falls and how it is often used to cast long shadows and rim people with light, you can describe that.

Telling the sound person "I want a microphone on that" is not as useful as saying "I want that to sound rock and roll." And if you have the ears to define it more closely, "I want to hear the fingers tapping but not so much of that thudding." These are ways of communicating to the tech that are useful.

Anyhow, here's the list of things that really do help in planning and communicating a show:

1) Have a plan. And I don't mean an idea, or a loose-leaf binder full of information. What I mean is an overview; as close as you can get to a single sheet of paper that lists every significant element of the show IN ORDER.

Say you are doing a dance show. You want to have a piece of paper that lists every dance/group in show order, intermissions included, and if you have your MCs doing skits between dances, or a raffle after intermission, include those too.

Theater people are used to having a single document. For us, it is the script. Everything of significance that happens from curtain to curtain can be located to a specific page and line of that script. There's no shuffling of papers trying to remember if the speech comes before the dance or vice versa; the order is implicit in the script.

In a perfect world, all of these events would be on one piece of paper with generous margins, so the technical people could scribble in the necessary information they need to make all those technical things happen at those stated moments; the track number and name of the CD that should play, the number of the light cue that is saved on the board, the positions of the microphones for the band.

I've often ended up cramming these notations into the corners of a program. It works well enough for a show that is simpler technically.

The important part here, though, is that you are trying to avoid anything that is undocumented, or that you have to drop one piece of paper and pick up another just to figure out what is going to happen next. It should be possible to just glance at a sheet and know "Okay, the MCs are going to announce the next act while the band sets up behind them, then they play fifteen minute set and then it is intermission."

And this segues into:

2) Plan the whole show. I can not list the number of shows I've worked where the question "how do we know when to start?" never came up. Your show begins the moment the doors are opened to let the audience in. Do not omit from your planning what the audience sees when they walk in, who is going to give the fire exit speech, who decides when the show is to begin, who cues the MCs to enter, and so on.

Like boxing, it is all about the transitions. It isn't enough to know the microphone needs for Jim's Jazz Band and Kai's Rock Band; you need to think about where the microphones will be when neither is playing, and how the microphones are going to get from Jim's setup to Kai's setup.

The idea here is of the total show. A "Show" isn't just what happens within the frame of the proscenium arch. The audience experience begins outside the building. It includes their interactions with the ushers. And every element of lighting and sound and set decoration for what happens BEFORE the band plays and AFTER the band plays is as much a design element as what is happening DURING the band's performance.

3) Lines of command and communication. We don't know you. We don't know your internal politics, who is in charge, who handles the money, who is a girlfriend of the guitarist and shouldn't be giving anyone orders. And when the House Manager closes the doors and the audience is getting restless waiting for the show to start, we don't want to push through a dressing room full of dancers and taiko drums trying to find someone who knows if the first act is ready to go and if we can turn the house lights out and raise the curtain.

Establish a clear point of contact. Have a stage manager who is available, who can be on headset, who can find out if the dancers are dressed yet and who can tell the MCs they need to stall for a few minutes longer. And who can make the tough calls, like deciding not to wait any longer for a missing drummer and to move the next band up and if the guy finally shows up, we'll slot that band back in later.

There are few things more frustrating than working for a hydra-head client, where fifteen different people each have a different story and none of them can make up their minds. Or when a parade of people come into the sound booth one after another; "Turn the guitar up." "Turn the guitar down." "Turn the guitar up." "Turn the guitar down."

And like a good officer, there are times you need to make the tough calls, but it always pays to listen to your NCO's. If your tech advises you that the audience is getting antsy and if you don't start the show in the next two minutes, they are going to start getting up to go to the lobby and buy snacks and make phone calls, pay attention. They've seen a lot more audiences than you have. And their advice is almost always based on helping you create the best show possible.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Little Too Literal

The place I've been at most recently forgot to cut a check for my contract so far work this month. The job I worked at the close of last month told me when I came in for the performance that they were putting it into the next financial period -- aka I don't get paid until the end of THIS month. And the job before that reneged on the equipment rental they promised.

I don't have the savings to handle six weeks without pay. So I'm dead broke and living off the last scraps of food in the pantry; mostly ramen noodles. Going eight to ten hours between meals. Which is to say; being hungry.

Ah, the joys of working in the arts. I'd gotten used to the low pay, but over the past year there has been a real epidemic of "forgetting" or "losing" checks, and that has seriously hurt.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Software Tools

I really should be doing more detailed how-to posts. Ah, well. At least I can go into a little bit of detail of the tools this particular budget designer uses.

Software need not be pricey. There are a number of good options in free, shareware, and very good deals -- especially now, with prices of such things as virtual instruments continuing to crash through the basement.

I can only be specific in regards to Mac software, though. I was given a Mac years ago as partial payment for a house-painting job. I went direct from CP/M to the Mac OS and never looked back. Sure, Mac stuff tends to be expensive, and the philosophy is towards a sealed system. The latter works to the advantage of an artist who just wants to do art instead of struggling with endless driver issues. But basically, if I want to go through the effort of learning a third operating system, it isn't going to be another product of a massive conglomerate. It would probably be Linux.


The laptop I bring to theaters these days is an old Ti Powerbook. G4 chip, street price down to about $200 now. I've put considerably more into mine, with maxed-out RAM, a 160-gig HD, and a high-speed drive that can burn double-sided DVDs. When I rent it out, I list the replacement value at $600. Trouble is, I will have to move on soon; there's more and more software I want to run that requires an Intel chip.

The main sound design tool is the hard disc itself. Several libraries of sound effects, including the entire BBC collection, and useful sounds I created myself over many past shows. Plus, several dozen CD's worth of period music (1920's jazz, big-band, Renaissance and other Early Music, 50's pop, etc.) are imported at full CD quality but still scannable via iTunes. No...I don't do mp3s or other compressed formats unless I have to (such as, emailing a clip to someone).

The Powerbook has audio I/O on a minijack so all I need is an adapter cable to play sounds out through the house system, or to do a simple spot recording. Since most of my recording work is on condenser mics, though, I usually need a Firewire interface or similar hooked up for that. I also compose the old-fashioned way, with a keyboard...but a 49-key M-Audio Ozone will fit in the gig bag just fine. I can, and have, literally composed a bit of underscore while sitting in the theater.

The primary composition tool for music and sound effects is CuBase. In fact, CuBase SE. I haven't quite bothered to cough up the bucks for the full version. I have near-infinite tracks of audio, and a whole suite of free-ware VST plug-ins. CuBase is like a cheaper version of Pro Tools. Or it could just be that like C, the syntax is common between many different packages. It offers the basic mixing of audio and MIDI tracks, and the ability to add plug-ins to both.

For many effects, what I do is audition a bunch of possible sounds, copy them into a temporary folder, then drag the lot of them into CuBase. Chop them, time-stretch them, equalize, add effects and of course layer and cross-fade between multiple sounds to create the final effect.

The most useful VST plug-ins are the MDA set. Completely free. I also found several other cool ones to mess with via some of the big forums out there that track and list freeware and shareware plug-ins, like KVR. (Actually.. MOSTLY KVR! If they don't list it, it probably doesn't exist.)

Another useful little tool is Audacity, the completely free multi-platform recording and sound editing tool. I've used a lot of editing utilities over the past, but Audacity is just perfect for file conversion and basic trimming and normalizing.

On the musical side, there are a surprising number of cool virtual instruments also out there for free. I make a certain use out of a budget shareware sampler called V-samp as well, which with work can make use of various free libraries packaged for Kontact and the like. It may take a bit of editing, however!

Although I spent many hours putting together virtual instruments in V-samp from various cheap sample CDs, I really use it more for things that are not exactly musical. Such as the playable steam train I constructed from chopped-up snippets from several library effects. The playable train allows me to perform on a keyboard a steam train of any speed, and speed up or slow down arbitrarily as dictated by the needs of the script -- say, to perform the sound of a train arriving over the last bar of music in an early scene of "Birdie" and pulling into the station.

Often the instrument I create may be as simple as a single telephone sample. But that allows me to "ring" to tempo, to humanize the sound, and to put it into a CueBase sequence along with audio clips to make the final sound picture.

Since it is all MIDI, I can run V-samp from connected keyboard or hot button, thus making instant play-back of spot cues in actual performance. But mostly I stick that sort of thing into Qlab.

Although there are some truly lovely virtual instruments for free (particularly software synthesizers) of my stalwarts being Da Hornet, and a silly favorite I have been unable to come up with an actual job for yet, Delay Lama...I make much use out of a couple of libraries that were a great bargain then (but now, bigger libraries have now dropped to fire-sale prices that are even lower than that). Garritan Personal Orchestra, for one.

GPO is pretty much the ONLY library you need for doing straight orchestral work. I mean, sure, you can always add more, and always improve. I just mean if all you have is GPO, you are covered for pretty much everything but ethnic instruments and choir. GPO also has a programming technique I truly love; key velocity is tied to attack, not volume. Volume and timbre (aka the difference between a forte performance and a pianissimo passage) are controlled by the keyboard's modulation wheel. This allows you to perform diminuendo or sforzondo just like the real orchestral instrument or section would -- and for virtuosic solo passages, it allows you wonderful nuancing of the dynamics as you play.

(Truth be told, I've found it easier to go back and overdub the modulation wheel accents!) And, of course, CC7 messages (aka volume knob) are still there for setting the orchestral balance. It makes for very lively sound that better echos what a real orchestra does.

I also use Garritan's "Jazz and Big Band" library, which improves the selection of woodwinds (especially sax) and adds jazz guitar, bass, and drums -- including of course brush kit. The latter is the only disappointment, as Gary didn't come with something equally as clever to allow you to enter a proper stir pattern. Instead you have to tinker around with loops.

I also picked up cheap (and it is cheaper now!) the Sonik Synth package from IK. Not as user-friendly as it could be, and the instruments are surprisingly sparse with samples, but it still gives you playable options in the more pop stalwarts...electric and synth basses, pads, and a good selection of sitars and dumbuks and so on to add that ethnic seasoning.

Which, for theater use, is extremely important! I have gotten lots of mileage through the years of a really shoddy sample set I made myself from a bargain-basement shawm (that I could barely play, at that).

One of these days, I'll get Kontakt, and do better sample manipulations.

The virtual instruments also have their place in straight sound design. For "How to Succeed in Business" I made both the elevator "ding" and the "lightbulb" sound of Finch getting one of his Ideas out of GPO instruments. Marimba and Vibraphone, I think. I made a train bell from one of that same set, and church bells from some of my V-samp collection of Tubular Bells (Tubular Bells, man!)

Plus don't forget you can add a little base drum or electric bass to fatten an impact sound (like a gun, or a punch). Or use some etheric pads straight, as part of an atmospheric background effect.

The freeware MIDI tools I use most often are MidiPipe and Midi Monitor.

The latter is great for when you want a proper hex dump of a MIDI stream (say, if you are trying to figure out the syntax of the MSC being spat out by a lighting console). The former is a great all-purpose tool for monitoring, massaging, re-routing, even creating MIDI messages. I've used it to create an automatic trill applied to a keyboard performance fed into a Kontakt LE mandolin patch. That was used live in performance.

Of course the Arduino IDE and the avr-gcc toolchain get involved in most of my MIDI manipulations, as those tools are how I get into my AVR chips to change what they are doing. But those are for other blog entries.

On the show playback side, Qlab dominates. I am still using version 1, with however full licenses (advanced audio and MIDI capabilities). Qlab is tops for a linear sequence, and works pretty well for certain triggered events (using either a hotkey on the computer or a MIDI input). A trick on the latter; set up a sound file as an infinite loop, and tie a STOP cue to a MIDI NoteOff event. Then the sound will play for as long as the button on the MIDI source is held down.

A last little note. This is a list of stuff that's cheap. Good for a starving artist. Sure, there are fancier tools out there. Some of them might even be worth the price tag (but you always have to balance...will you actually USE those features in a production environment).

The other thing you could be tempted to say is "Why are you using this stuff when you could just download a cracked copy of (fill in name of high-end software here)?"

The reason is respect for intellectual property. Mine, as much as anyone's. I sell what I create. I have clients to whom I can represent that I have full rights to the materials I provide (and the tools I use to create them). If it turns out I don't, I effectively lose the rights to my work, but more importantly, I lose the trust of my client as my client stands to lose a lot of money in legal fees.

It isn't worth it. Besides, by sticking with shareware tools and paying the registration for those, I support the shareware movement; I support the creation of software that truly is customer-oriented, not marketing driven. Shareware is software built for love and supported because it works. It will usually be more streamlined, take less system overhead, have less unexpected lock-ups and crashes, and it won't keep you and your work in hock to a company that is only interested in making you buy the next upgrade, and the next.

And when all you want to do is make the music (or the sound), and not fiddle around with endless installations and tricky registration systems, that is truly a no-brainer.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The End-User and the Source Code

NOT about computers!

I may need to buy a new coffee filter soon. I've been using the old one since 1986.

Yes. 1986. A "gold" filter (probably brass plated with gold) bought at Peet's coffee the week I got back in town from being in the Army. It is starting to get a little torn around the top edge but otherwise still works great. When I finally retire it, it will be because it is no longer possible to pour water through it properly.

Which is true of almost all of what I own. In the case of my old Mustang, when I retired it the engine was only hitting on two cylinders, not just the emissions control but everything North of the carburetor was gone, the brakes were shot, the tires bald, the body rotted in several places and the frame bent. It went to a junker who was willing to take it for free (my next car went to the State, who paid me two hundred bucks for it). In both cases, I am quite certain no-one drove it after me.

Lately, of course, technology moves so quickly and our society has become so wasteful, it doesn't matter that the pants I am tossing only have one hole, or the television I am tossing still works perfectly. No-one cares. Not even in Bangladesh, where some poor family is going to poison themselves leaching the salvageable metals out of the carcass (or where-ever recycling goes now -- it is not SUPPOSED to be poisoning the third world but I have no guarantees it isn't).

I recently sent a computer to the junkyard. 7100 frankenmac; old Mac tower with a Sonnet upgrade daughter-board and two NuBuss audio cards; Audiomedia 4-channel I/O and a Sample-cell II with eight outputs. Still works great, of course. But I just sent the last of my rack-mount samplers to a friend as a long-term no-conditions loan. I am entirely virtual instruments now, firewire and all that.

Still, when I run something to the ground, use it with patches and baling wire and duct-tape until it just can't be repaired any more, it doesn't actually leave me with a good feeling. Sure, I got some good use out of it, but I know when it leave me no-one will ever use it again. I am the true end-user.

I just finished a short gig and I did something I have not done before -- at least, not that methodically. I took my source code.

Well, not literally. In this case, I was using a Yamaha sound board with the ability to memorize patch and cues (as well as EQ and other settings).

I am still in solid support of Creative Commons, and Open Source, but I have decided I will no longer apply those traditions in ALL cases. In the case of the theater work I do, I am increasingly in competition. And not just with hungry young designers who can learn from my work (whom I have unselfishly shared with, even volunteered time to assist and instruct, many times in the past.) I am also having my living threatened by theaters who call me in to do a job, then don't call me again -- because they can use the set-up I created without me, and not have to pay for it.

So no more. When I left this gig, I erased the memory of the sound board and took the only back-up of my work with me, on a personal thumb drive. I also unpatched ALL of the cables and even returned all the adapters to the bins, leaving no clue as to what had been plugged into what.

(In this particular situation, I am in direct conflict with someone who has full access to the facility and has already -- basically -- stolen a gig from me. I am unwilling to give them an easy route to duplicating what I accomplished.)

The free ride is over. I still feel favorably about sharing, and about helping out, but I've been stepped on by young designers who learned from me and went on to take the gigs I was wanting. They have used gear they have borrowed from me...meaning they look better to the client but didn't bear the cost of the research and purchase and maintenance I did. And they have even had me bail them out -- usually uncredited -- so their name is still on the program and the contract and they get the next gig as well even though I did the lion's share of the work.

No more. The source code stays with me. You want the work? I come with it.

How to Make a Mic Belt

A newer version of this article, with full photographs of a bag under construction, is here.e

People seem to be asking, so I'll share. Unfortunately I have no pictures for this, not at the moment.

I've seen a number of variations, and I've seen a number of failures. The following combines the best aspects of several designs I have used.

Tools; sewing machine, 1 1/2" elastic, 1 1/2" and 1/2" velcro, about 6" of water-repellent fabric per two packs. White is the standard (it seems to hide best under costumes).

Cut a simple pouch; double the fabric over, lay one of the larger transmitters you have (like a Shure SLX) on it and trace. Allow 1/2" for simple seams, and build it 3/4" tall. Allow a 1/4" margin on both sides if using non-stretch material. Stretchy material does not need to be cut on the bias. Stitch along the sides, zig-zag the edges if you really want to, turn inside-out.

Remember, you are putting a condom-wrapped transmitter in here, and you may tuck some of the extra microphone wire in here as well. So snug is good but tight is not.

Attach male and female velcro to close the mouth; one continuous 1/2" strip (you can leave a small gap at the sides.

Now cut the 1 1/12" elastic to length. If you have the waist measurements of cast, cut to that, otherwise make a selection in several lengths. They can always be pinned up in use. Mark them with a Sharpie with their lengths. Put a good 2-3" of velcro on either end but don't compensate for the overlap; the overlap of the velcro is what takes the slack out of the elastic when worn, and the length of the velcro patch gives you adjustment in how tight it is.

Carefully working through the mouth of the bag, stitch it in the top and bottom corners to the elastic. Where on the elastic doesn't matter; anywhere between centered to 1/3 mark.

Top and down, however, it is best if the mouth of the bag is slightly "above" the elastic, but most of the bag hangs "below" the elastic (as worn.) If you are good with the machine, or have patience for hand-stitching, stitch the ENTIRE width of the elastic. The second worst mistake people make in these belts is getting lazy and stitching only the top. In use, then, they flop around and can even flip over.

In use, the pack slides in the pouch with microphone wire (and antenna if any) on top. (Some older packs, like the Shure LX, have a bottom-issuing antennae. You need to build the pouches for this with a stitched button-hole at the bottom of the pouch.) The velcro just closes over everything. Then the elastic goes around the actor's waist, usually at gut height or higher (right below the lower margin of the ribs is comfortable for many).

Often, centering the pack in the middle of the actor's back works best. Some actors with more physical roles will chose to wear the mic belt inside out, with the elastic holding the transmitter firmly against their body. The belt should also be worn OVER the most UNDERNEATH layer of clothing; preferably a layer the actor will never take off during the performance. The microphone cable travels along this layer, exiting at the shirt collar.

For less demanding physical roles, an alternate pack design uses a stitched fabric tube for a belt instead of a single length of elastic. There is no elastic in this design; just the velcro close. A fabric with a slight give to it is preferred! Cheaper 1/2" elastic can also substitute. These make up the sleazier mic belts you will find in stock at many places. They are usually stitched so the entire bag hangs down from the belt. In an active role it will flop around and can even spill the transmitter out entirely, but for standing and singing it is fine.

And there are commercial packs. These tend to be extremely robust designs in thick rubberized fabric. If you can't find any at a local theatrical supply, look for aerobics instructor supplies.